Hate him or love him, the Dolphins were going to miss Ted Ginn Jr.’s speed and playmaking ability on special teams (not so much in the receiving game).Â Sure, he’d run out of bounds and try to avoid contact, but he also ranked fifth in kick return yards (1,296) and 14thÂ kickoff return averageÂ (24.92) in the NFLÂ last season.
In comes KR/PR Clifton “Batman” Smith, who could end up rivalring Brandon Marshall as the team’s most impactful and game-changing addition of the offseason.Â AfterÂ being waived by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday,Â the return specialist choseÂ to sign with Miami after alsoÂ working out for the Green Bay Packers.
The 25-year-old was initially signed to the Bucs’ practice squadÂ as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and went on to be selected to the Pro BowlÂ after ranking second in the NFL in punt return average (14.1) and sixth in kickoff return averageÂ (27.6).Â Despite appearing in only nine games, he finished sixth in total punt return yards and (324), and scored on a 97-yard kickoffÂ return and a 70-yard punt return.Â Smith went on to improve his yards per kickoff to 29.1 (second in the league) in 2009, and his career average of 28.3 tops all active players and is the fifth-highest in NFL history.
Smith willÂ likely take over primaryÂ punt-return duties from Davone Bess, who’s quietly been one of the worst at the position in the NFL.Â Over the last two seasons, Bess has returned 49 punts, the 11th-highest total in the league, but his 8.98 yards per return rank 25th out of 35 qualified players.Â Smith’s 12.09 average, on the other hand,Â isÂ second behind only the New York Giants’ Dominik Hixon (12.15).
In even better news, Patrick Cobbs, who’sÂ coming back from knee surgery,Â willÂ now be relieved from handling kickoffs.Â Since entering the league in 2007, he’s posted the second-lowest kickoff return averageÂ (20.48) among 72 playersÂ with at least 25 returns.Â Fifth-round pick Nolan CarrollÂ was also inÂ contention forÂ the job, but didn’t fare much better during the preseason by averagingÂ 22.8 yards on nine returns.
Of course, Pro Bowl-caliber players in their primeÂ don’t get released for no reason.Â Â For all of his special teams contributions, Smith is virtually non-existentÂ on offense,Â rushing four timesÂ forÂ just seven yardsÂ last year.Â There are legitimate concernsÂ aboutÂ his durability after a pair of concussions limited the 5-foot-8, 190-pound dynamo to 11 games in 2009 and lingering knee pain forced him to miss two 2010Â preseason games.Â Â He’s hasÂ also been extremely fumble-prone, losing the ball a whopping seven times (tied with Bess and Ginn, among others, for ninth among non-quarterbacks over the last two years)Â in only 20 games.
Despite the concerns, there’s no question that Smith is one of the bestÂ return specialists in the game and presents a significant upgrade for the Dolphins.Â Barring injuries, he’s not likely to receive a lot of carries as the team’s fifth RB, but runningÂ behindÂ a better offensive line in Miami should allow him to be a bigger factor on those rare occasions.
Smith will get his first test against the Buffalo Bills, whoÂ wereÂ held opponents to 21.5 yards per kickoff return (7th-best in the NFL) and 7.7 yards on punt returns (11th), on Sunday.